Of steak and sizzle (and antibiotics)

It has always been the case, but is amplified by social media and the 24-hour news cycle. Society demands — and rightfully so — that those in positions of accountability to others do what is generally believed to right, good and honorable. This is the steak.

In the case of the social capital for U.S. agriculture, there is plenty of steak, in both the literal and figurative sense. For generations, agriculturalists have built their businesses based on what they best believe to be right, good and honorable. The general story of agriculture, across the board, has steak aplenty. I know first hand as I have spent almost two decades finding good stories to highlight and I never have to look too hard to find them.

As the general populace has grown further removed from grandpa’s farm, though, the details of agriculture’s “steak” start to get a bit hazy. As a result, not only do those involved with agriculture have to really be right, good and honorable, they also have to demonstrate this to others in a tangible way. This is the sizzle, and it is where agriculture has really struggled.

Without the steak, ample sizzle makes a really good initial impression that can quickly crumble under increased scrutiny. Without the sizzle, the quality of the steak can go completely unrecognized and even scorned, avoided and disregarded. Where do you think the various issues within U.S. production agriculture fall on this spectrum in which the steak is at stake?

In November, the World Health Organization (WHO) released recommendations regarding the use of antibiotics in agriculture and stirred the simmering pot of consumer concerns by recommending that farmers and the food industry stop using antibiotics routinely to promote growth and prevent disease in healthy animals.

“A lack of effective antibiotics is as serious a security threat as a sudden and deadly disease outbreak,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of WHO. “Strong, sustained action across all sectors is vital if we are to turn back the tide of antimicrobial resistance and keep the world safe.”

In a statement, the National Pork Producers Council responded to the WHO recommendations.

“A ban on disease prevention uses of antibiotics in food-animal production being advocated by the World Health Organization would be ill-advised and wrong. Denying pigs, cows and chickens necessary antibiotics would be unethical and immoral, leading to animal suffering and possibly death, and could compromise the nation’s food system…

“The U.S. pork industry’s goal is to reduce the need for antibiotics, and it has devoted time and resources to that end, including adopting good antibiotic stewardship practices and studying alternatives to antibiotics. Simply reducing on-farm uses of antibiotics, as the WHO suggests, however, likely would have no effect on public health and would jeopardize animal health. Its call for stopping the use of antibiotics that are critically important in human medicine for treating infected animals is antithetical to pork farmers’ and veterinarians’ moral obligation to care for their pigs.”

In an Animal Agriculture Alliance presentation earlier this year, Leah Beyer, director of digital and social media communications at Elanco Animal Health, talked about the ongoing social media conversation about antibiotic use since the implementation of the Veterinary Feed Directive. She pointed out that food companies and their numerous efforts to move to “antibiotic-free” are dominating the discussion with crucial inputs from activists benefitting from scare tactics also playing a significant role. Beyer said the top influencers on antibiotics on Twitter are: vegans, organizations, and brands. Those who dominate the discussion shape the sizzle.

“When McDonalds announced that they were ahead of schedule with their antibiotic-free movement they actually got negative backlash because they weren’t doing enough,” Beyer said. “We need more from scientists — more science.”

Beyer said that veterinarians (the boots on the ground experts on the matter) are not enough of a voice on the issue. Poultry owns the conversation in terms of the animal groups, but KFC announced that they are going to not be using any medically important antibiotics.

“Now we are waiting for the activists to move on to dairy, beef or swine,” Beyer said. “My guess is swine is next.”

Now, consider an average consumer sipping a latte in a coffee shop somewhere scrolling through their social media of choice and taking in the headlines about this global antibiotic debate. Do they see the right, good and honorable aspects of their food production system? Or, are they getting lost and confused in the battle for the sizzle? I can only speculate, but I do know this:

When we just let our sizzle fizzle, with our reputation stake,

We’ll all take a beatin’ ‘cause our food won’t be eaten

If they don’t even know ‘bout our steak.

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